Free Your Mind, And Your Ass Will Follow: Platoon (1986)

Over the years Oliver Stone has sort of gained a reputation as being an abrasive director who often loses sight of making a good film due to his penchant for making politically scathing commentaries within his work.  Fortunately, on a few occasions Stone manages to keep the criticism focused enough to create a spectacular work, this is the case with Wall Street and is certainly the case with Platoon.  In the same vein as war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Thin Red Line, Platoon is loaded with a veritable who's who of emerging Hollywood actors, and a few veterans colliding together in brilliantly stacked performances, ranging from a smile-wielding Forrest Whitaker to a soft-spoken, yet suave Johnny Depp.  A film with a frenzied pace and incoherent editing structure, Platoon depicts a film about war as though the viewer is actually amidst the action, perhaps due to the fact that Stone himself was a Vietnam veteran, helping to explain the vehement and focused rage of his films.  At no point in the film does the narrative fall stale and having known the plot to this film well before its viewing, I found myself nonetheless blown away by its cinematic presence and general enjoyability.  Trying at times and poetic at others, the mix of cinema verite and exploitative grandiosity comprises what could well be one of the best war films I have ever seen, if it were not for the existence of Stanley Kubrick.  Platoon is an American classic and deservedly so, it like Citizen Kane or Easy Rider has a very real place in the historical landscape of American cinema and society.

Platoon introduces us to the hellish experiences of one enlisted soldier named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who has done the unthinkable and actually volunteered for service.  Along side a gang of lively soldiers, Taylor experiences the emotional and physical drains of war.  This includes amongst other individuals King (Keith David) a wise-cracking African-American man on the lookout for a means to leave the jungle, Sergeant O'Neill (John C. McGinley) who strives to gain promotions within his squadron despite being overlooked multiple times, as well as the less than authoritative Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses) who is clearly scared by the entire Vietnam ordeal.  However, much of Taylor's war experiences are contentiously battled between two sergeants, one the hippy, hash smoking Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) who clearly tries to befriend those around him and wants nothing more than to leave and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Beringer) who is ruthless and maniacal, seeing the war as a means to purge the earth of lesser beings.  Constantly confronting one another over the "soul" of Taylor, Barnes and Elias become incredibly confrontational to the point that Barnes kills Elias in cold blood during  a shootout, ultimately, leading to the squadron being disbanded.  After a short rest, Taylor is sent back out to war and, after yet another skirmish, finds himself with an opportunity to exact revenge for Elias and act he quickly undertakes, killing Barnes.  Ultimately, the film reminds us that war often pits allies against one another, leaving the enemy secondary, at least this is how Oliver Stone remembers Vietnam.

I could go into detail about how Platoon focuses on the intensity and sporadic nature of war, or I could talk about the racial vision of Stone's Vietnam.  More so I could talk about this film's political nature as it relates to other Stone movies, however, none of these approaches quite matches the idea of possessing souls as it relates to Platoon.  In this context, Barnes and Elias represent two reapers of souls, Barnes for the evil and Elias for the good, or so it seems, it could be said that both are simply corrupt soldiers seeking to validate their existences.  Furthermore, both Barnes and Elias have their assumed apostles, the various troops in the squadron siding with whom they find the most reflective of their own ideals.  It is saturated with religious metaphors and imagery from the presence of crosses, to somewhat ironic ankhs, as well as the now famous and oft-parodied death of Elias, which is all to Christlike.  Furthermore, it is, in my belief, no accident that Christ Taylor, becomes Christ T., a bit on the nose but quite fitting with Stone's religious study of war.  Overall, the film reads as a glorified study of The Golden Rule, one that is, ultimately, questioned, revisited and undermined in two hours of cinematic perfection.

Key Scene: Guns and smoke...and not from firing said gun.

This is a classic, and undeniable stamp on the greatness of American cinema, and while I watched it on Netflix, I would venture to say that the bluray is worth looking into, I know I intend to grab a copy.

1 comment:

  1. This film, more than any other, captures the actual essence of being in the jungle, fighting the war. War, of course, fights with the morality of men.